For about the last 18 months, I've been thinking about the following question:
Why do most writers and directors I talk to really hate dramaturges so much?
Or to put it another way:
How come the relationship between the dramaturge and the writer has gone so far south? What's going on?
Here's some attempts at answering that question.
(1) There are a lot of bad dramaturges out there.
There are also, of course, a lot of good ones (here's one, for example). There are also a lot of bad directors and writers and actors and designers. Probably more bad ones that good ones. I note this not to bash the profession but to simply provide a little bit of perspective. When people are criticizing directors and the way they behave, my usual impulse is to say "well, yes, but that's because the person you were working with sucked and was a charlatan and a narcissist" rather than, say, "the whole damn system's out of order!". But there are some systemic problems that need to be addressed, and it's important to sort those out from the run-of-the-mill problem of working with people who might be ill suited to your project.
(2) Institutional Insterests vs. Play Interests
The most common complaint I hear comes down to "who do you dance for?" In other words, is a dramaturg trying to help the play get better, or trying to serve the institutional interests of their employer? This question is basically an instant-trust-destroyer. It's very hard to build a relationship with someone when you're not sure if you can trust them.
I think there's an easy fix here though, and that's getting artistic directors more involved in the process. That way, if something is coming from the institution, the institution is actually voicing that concern, as opposed to forcing someone whose job is supposedly to help the team with the play into that role. It also makes lines of conflict easier to understand. Another thing is for dramaturgs to be encouraged to treat the play as their priority, as opposed to the theater that's employing them. Given who signs the paychecks (it ain't the playwright) this actually probably has to be overtly stated more often thanit is.
(3) Who Are You?
If I'm talking to a writer about their work, they may very well know a lot about me. They might've seen one of my shows. They might read this blog. They could look up reviews. Talk to actors they know who've worked with me. Or other writers for that matter. I have a portfolio of sorts out there in the world. With dramaturgs it's very very different. So how does the writer know what to think of the dramaturgs input when they start offering it? And, when that input is offered from someone who acts as if they have an authority they haven't really established, that begins to look fairly presumptuous.
This gets to the heart of how collaborators build a relationship. When I first start working with a playwright my conversations with them are rarely about their play. They tend to be about art, music, movies, literature. Things we might agree or disagree on and why. At the "first date" lunches (or coffees) it's usually not until the last ten minutes that the actual play gets discussed. And that ratio obviously changes over time, but not immediately. The next time it might be 60% politics/art/culture/whatever and 40% the play. And then 40-60 and eventually probably 80-20 (or 10-90! or 0-100!)
It's hard to create a relationship when the first thing you talk about is what is and is not working with something very important and personal to someone that they might feel protective of. Due to time constraints, however, this seems to be what happens a lot. I know many writers whose first conversation with a dramaturg was the dramaturg giving the writer notes. Which, look, I know that a good part of creating a working relationship is actually doing the work but there's a certain cart-before-the-horse kinda thing that can happen.
(4) What is the relationship going to be?
A number of the horror stories i've heard have certain commonalities that come down to a failure on all sides to discuss what the relationship is going to be. And thus, the times when problems 1-3 have been successfully negotiated by writers i know are when they've been fairly assertive about what they want and what the show needs. Sometimes they need a lot of help, sometimes they don't.
Again, I think that there's a lot of blame to go around. To dramaturgs, for assuming they know what the relationship needs to be, to writers for not working hard enough to change it, but especially to artistic directors (again!) for not working to organize the creative team properly.
(5) Attitudenal starting point
See title of this post. This is the thing that I think is a systemic problem that goes beyond good and bad dramaturgs, and also affects the discipline of directors (and teachers and actors and everyone else) which is that culturally, we are socialied to view new plays as a series of problems to be smoothed out or fixed thanks to applying sufficient pressure on a writer, while we view classics as a series of opportunities for interpretation and work on the part of the creative team. This is ludicrous, if you think about it. We need a healthier disrespect for classics and more respect for new work.
(6) Can we at least try it?
I think the other thing is that the easiest way to see if something works or not is to rehearse it, and a lot of tension gets created by people wanting to change texts (or not change texts) before there's a chance to really look at it. And by "lookat it" I don't mean "Read it" I mean "work on it in a practical setting". Simply put, figuring out whether or not something that's on the page works is a guessing game, one that you can be very informed about, but still, most people on all sides will be wrong at least some of the time.
I'm not sure this one changes without resources.
Anyway, these are just some of the thoughts on the breakdowns in this relationship that I have. I think a lot of them come out to (in no particular order):
(a) bad artistic direction
(b) Arrogance (culturally supported and reinforced arrogance!) on the part of dramaturgs
(c) lack of assertiveness on the playwright's part (which is totally understandble, given the power dynamics at work in most rehearsal/production environments)
(d) lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities
(e) not enough time or energy invested in creating the working relationship or environment